Imitations That Transcend Flattery


The New York Times, July 15, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — For more than 40 years, the artist Richard Pettibone has thought small in at least two ways. He has relentlessly produced exquisitely accurate pocket-size copies of modernist masterworks by artists from Duchamp and Brancusi to Lichtenstein and Warhol. In addition, he has seemed completely unperturbed by this apparent lack of originality. What has it gotten him? Certainly not the attention he deserves.

But redemption may be nigh. Mr. Pettibone's first full-dress retrospective is at the Institute of Contemporary Art here. Organized by Ian Berry, associate director of the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Michael Duncan, a critic and independent curator from Los Angeles, the exhibition is undeniably ambitious: 215 works spanning more than four decades of art-making.

The walls are dotted (literally) with tiny versions of Warhol's soup cans, Marilyns, cows and flowers, the latter sometimes multiplied into miniature wallpaperlike patches. There are shaped paintings locked together like puzzle pieces made from dovetailed versions of Lichtensteins, Warhols and, of course, Frank Stella's early shaped paintings. A triple stack of diminishing Warhol soup cans mimics Jasper Johns's "Three Flags." More recent works include tiny copies of Mr. Stella's vaunted black paintings, Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" and baby Mondrians whose slightly blurred scaffoldings are intended to recreate the Dutch master's famed optical buzz.

And there are at least a couple of strains of trans-Atlantic sculpture. A series of spare, perpendicular angles extracted from the Mondrians evokes the sailboats that so many early American modernists loved to paint. More substantial are short, thin renditions of Brancusi's "Endless Column," carved in rich woods and perched on Shaker table pedestals. A less direct homage to the Shakers can be seen in the impeccable Lilliputian stretchers of Mr. Pettibone's paintings; these are visible in the batches of canvases displayed in two big double-sided glass frames that evoke Duchamp's "Large Glass" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Also alluded to are Picabia, late Picasso and Pound.

All this and more fits fairly comfortably into two galleries here, neither of them very large. When the show travels to the Tang in the fall and then to the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, Calif., it will probably require little more than a midsize truck. It is unlikely that so much artistic ground has ever been covered outside of an art history survey book or a museum postcard display, and probably never quite as pleasurably.

Mr. Pettibone's work has always been vulnerable to some of contemporary art's most popular pejoratives: cute, twee, teensy and craftsy; minor; unoriginal. It is also called "art about art," which probably hasn't helped. It can't be said that these adjectives don't sometimes apply. But with large quantities of his work, something else prevails: formal rigor, the personalizing effects of scale and touch, faith in materials as carriers of artistic meaning and, above all, hard-nosed, even hypercritical reverence.

In addition, under cover of cuteness and pitch-perfect downsizing (note the infinitesimal nails on the plain wood strip frames), Mr. Pettibone has persistently asked some nagging questions. Who owns artistic ideas? And what have materials and craft got to do with them? What, really, is originality? Why does so much art have to be so big? And tangential to this: What is the essence of miniaturization? What happens to visual experience when previously large, famous paintings are reduced to the size of the viewer's face, while, at their best, looking mind-bogglingly like the real thing? An answer that touches on several of these questions is: A new, transformative, maybe original sense of intimacy and ownership that is unusually empowering. It is rather amazing to see art cut down to size with its integrity intact. In most cases cuteness gives way to an unsparing yet radiant sense of craft.

The plethora of works on view in Philadelphia reverberates in multiple directions through the present and the past. Combined with the labels and the show's useful catalog essays, it suggests that Mr. Pettibone's art has effectively been omitted from several oft-told histories, including those of Pop Art, Photo Realism, conceptual art and 80's appropriation art as well as the vibrant Southern California art scene of the early 1960's.

The show is also pertinent to a time when exacting duplication in sculpture and photo-based painting is a prevalent tendency, if not an overloaded bandwagon. With this show, the efforts of artists like Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Steve Wolf, Tom Friedman and Matt Johnson flash before the eyes. Not to mention Eric Doeringer, a young artist whose sidelines include making bootleg copies of works by contemporary painters and occasionally sculptors, and selling them on the streets of Chelsea.

(Mr. Pettibone's precedence has not been entirely slighted; Nature Morte, one of the most appropriation-oriented galleries of the East Village art scene's heyday, packed a 20-year survey of his work into its tiny storefront in 1987.)

Mr. Pettibone helped set the stage for 80's appropriation art by beginning to recycle the pop culture appropriations of Pop Art almost before the term was out of the oven, much less cooled. In 1964, when he was 26 and living in Los Angeles, he produced two tiny, exquisitely made copies of Andy Warhol's 1962 painting "Campbell Soup Can (Pepper Pot)," one in green, the other in gray, each rubber-stamped with Warhol's name and his own. In other words, he was making Pop Art and post-Pop Art early on and at the same time, as was Elaine Sturtevant, a New York artist with a nearly antithetical sensibility.

By 1965, Mr. Pettibone had initiated his diminutive versions of works by Messrs. Johns, Lichtenstein and Stella, and Ed Ruscha, another Los Angeles artist (who, for the record, is barely three weeks older than Mr. Pettibone). He also made a perfect copy, life-size and in three dimensions, of Duchamp's 1913 "Bicycle Wheel."

Duchamp, along with Warhol, were crucial influences, as they were for Mr. Ruscha and other young California artists, including Bruce Nauman and Vija Celmins. Mr. Pettibone encountered their ideas at full force in Warhol's first gallery show (of the Campbell soup cans) at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962, and in Walter Hopp's legendary Duchamp retrospective, at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963, the first held in the United States.

The combination encouraged Mr. Pettibone to see everything in the world as a ready-made ready for possible anointment as art. His version of anointing was miniaturization, logical for someone whose first aesthetic love objects were the model trains of his childhood. Images of trains figure in the earliest works in this show, reverse-glass paintings whose small size, rich colors and shiny surfaces bring to mind the work of another Californian, the ceramic genius Ken Price.

Art historical revisionism is not to be underestimated. But this show is most interesting as a passionate, restless, ultimately self-serving (in a good way) exercise in veneration. Mr. Pettibone is a connoisseur and careful explorer of the chief wellspring of art-making: the simple love of art. His work makes transparent the complex mixture of discernment, admiration and competition that spurs artists to make something they can call their own.

The show demonstrates in spectacularly bald terms that like all contemporary artists, Mr. Pettibone would be nothing without the work of other artists. It is a concept, however, that he had to learn twice. In the 1970's, when he turned to making his life-size replicas of Polaroids of his family and other Photo-Realist paintings, his art goes soft and out of focus because it lacks a reference to something larger and already known. It took the combination of a piece by Jonathan Borofsky and immersion in the writings of Pound to jolt Mr. Pettibone back into his subservient role, where paradoxically, he is more himself. His black Stellas of the 1990's are as good as his best efforts of the 1960's, namely his Warhols and his irresistible early Lichtensteins, with their tiny, red Benday dots.

The references never cease. A small painting reminiscent of a Warhol electric chair series turns out to depict a photograph of Duchamp's studio. Follow the checklist closely and you will find that the show is chronological, but only in fits and starts. As Ingrid Schaffner, the Institute of Contemporary Art curator who oversaw the installation here pointed out to me, this requires you to crisscross the galleries not unlike the impassable cat's cradle of string with which Duchamp and Frederick Kiesler festooned the "First Papers of Surrealism" exhibition in 1942.

This satisfying show adds another brick to the wall of art history, a precarious structure under perpetual renovation and expansion. It may be a miniature brick, but it is a solid one that establishes Mr. Pettibone's role in the land rush of cloning, borrowing and recycling known as postmodernism. In the process, he has made art that he can call his own. Its emotional wisdom for the artistically inclined is bracingly clear: love art, love yourself, do what you have to do and what only you can do. Utter honesty is the only path to originality.

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